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Laura Oliver’s been fighting for equity in hockey her entire life, from the minute she first realized her brother was getting better ice times than her. In addition to being a great coach and player, she’s also the former CEO of the Grindstone Foundation, a consultant at Deloitte, a key ally to the FHL and a new mom. As we celebrate the 2SLGBTQI+ community and changemakers like Laura in June, the FHL’s Denise Withers sat down with her to chat about hockey and Pride in Canada. Here’s an abbreviated version of their conversation.

Denise: First of all - congratulations on your new son Felix!

Laura: Thank you. It's been a whirlwind - I have a whole new life. And I love it, adapting to mom life. I’m the only one taking parental leave right now because it’s just kind of keeping a potato alive. (Laughter) Whereas when he's nine months, he'll demand more later. So my wife Katie will join me on leave then.

Denise: Amazing! We’re so thrilled for you and your family. Now, we haven’t talked since I interviewed you for your first Changemaker story. So I have a billion questions for you. To kick things off, of course, it's Pride month. When we look at the game these days, what's the significance of Pride – specifically for women and gender-diverse players and leaders?

Laura: I've been attending Pride since I was 15 years old, and I think that one of the main reasons I wanted to attend is just to celebrate who I am and, in some cases, stand up to the naysayers. It's so important that people feel like they can be themselves. That's why Pride still exists, and Pride will continue to exist until people truly feel accepted and can be their authentic selves. So, Pride in the game is just so much more important now for every athlete to feel that they can be themselves on the ice; it all contributes to performance. If an athlete can feel their authentic self and they can show up to the rink every day feeling included, feeling their best self, and playing better, then their overall performance is better and their team performance is better. It's like a chain of events. You know, I work in culture and behaviour. So, I love the ecosystem that is culture.

Some people may think of Pride as an event, but Pride really is about allowing people to be their authentic selves.

Denise: Yes! I love that. When you look at the men’s and women’s games right now, do you think there's any difference in terms of how Pride might help?

Laura: Absolutely. If you look at it, the most obvious comparison right now is between the NHL and the PWHL. The PWHL, what it seems to me, is showing up right out of the gate as an inclusive organization and an inclusive league. The NHL is doing their best to become that league. And I think there's still a bit to go, but what I think is so cool about the PWHL is that they're starting fresh, And they're saying everybody who joins our teams is included. Anybody who comes to our barn is included. And I think that it's a ripple effect throughout their whole organization. By contrast, the NHL is still struggling with representation.

One of the biggest things that I've noticed is that it's so infrequent that a player comes out or shares who they are. It could very well be that there aren't any gay players in the NHL, and that's okay. But what about sharing stories? “Hey, my sister. Hey, my brother. Hey, my friend”. So many times, we see organizations trying to come up with data. “Here's what our organization looks like.” But sometimes you just don't have that data. So I think it's important for them to share stories about themselves, each other, coaches, and fans to really show that they are trying to be more inclusive and authentic. I think we all saw in the news when the NHL banned Pride tape for a minute there. Not the best decision ever, and saying that players didn't have to participate in different events. So in terms of what's missing, probably that genuineness of – we're doing this for the right reasons. When you say that you are and then you ban things like Pride tape, it kind of goes against you; you're not walking the talk.

Denise: 100%. So, organizations need to lead with authenticity and representation. For the rest of us, what can we do to be better allies?

Laura: I think in hockey and just as people, I think we can all do our part in terms of trying to get to know our friends and our family and what they're going through. There are so many resources online. The organization You Can Play has different learnings online where you can learn about different terminology for the LGBT community. You can talk to your friends more about their experiences to become a better ally and become more empathetic to the experiences of others. And you can wear things like, or you can use Pride tape if you wish, or you can go to gay Pride.

But I think at the end of the day, even the small things help, like listening; just listening to the experiences of others can help us all be allies.

Denise: Empathy is such a big piece. When I interviewed former NHL defenceman Mark Fraser a couple of years ago, that was one of the big things that he was really leaning into in his work with the Maple Leafs – trying to build empathy and teach empathy on the team, not just for inclusion but to improve performance. And we’re seeing now from our work in the Lab that this isn’t just for players, but being able to feel like you can be yourself also matters for coaches and leaders. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Laura: Coaches have such a powerful position. And before I touch on your question, I think back to the experience that I had as a child and growing up and not really sure exactly who I was and my identity and who I liked and didn't like, And coaches really, they have the opportunity to play an advocacy role for those players. And I go back to what I said at the beginning: if a player doesn't feel like their authentic self, then how can they perform at their best? Well, it's the same thing for coaches. I just watched a really sad video of a Catholic school. They had just denied raising the Pride flag. It was a bunch of parents cheering that and happy that it had been denied in a vote. And, of course, I thought to the students who were going, “Oh my goodness, I can't be myself; I'm being suppressed.” But also think of the teachers who now feel suppressed, who can't be themselves in front of those students, who can't be themselves in front of those parents. And I feel like that translates to coaching as well. If coaches can't be themselves, they can't be that visible support for those kids. It goes back to mentorship. And with women in coaching roles, if there aren't a lot of them, they're not visible. Same thing with coaches. If LGBT coaches aren't visible, it's the same thing. The athletes probably won't be able to see themselves in that position either.

Denise: Exactly. So what's next for you and hockey in your and your family? When is Felix getting skates?

Laura: He should be getting skates pretty soon! We tried to get him a Toronto PWHL jersey, but they just don't have the baby sizes yet. Hopefully, he'll be on skates in a few years, and we'll see if he likes it. We won't push him too hard, but if he likes it, then that's great. For me, I'm using this time to think about – when I'm done maternity leave, who do I want to be? What old behaviours do I want to leave behind? What new behaviours do I want to improve upon? And I definitely don't think my work in hockey is done yet. I will forever be inspired by the ability to help change the game in any way that I can. So hopefully, there'll be something in the works in the future for hockey. Or sport in general – it's pretty exciting that the new soccer league is starting up too – a different sport with similar problems.

Denise: It is such an exciting time for women's sport. We’ll look forward to your thoughts on the PWHL and the future of the game for women in our next conversation!

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